Who's to Blame for a Fat America?

Constant Exposure to Advertising Coupled With Very Large Servings Make Resistance a Challenge, Health Advocates Argue

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Who's at fault for Americans being so fat? As much grief as the marketers get, some say it's ultimately up to the consumer to eat wisely. Even most consumers agree that no one is forcing them to chug down a 70-oz. soda and 15 fried-chicken bits. And, as many a marketer has discovered, even when presented with better-for-them options, consumers don't exactly come running. Then again, until recently, the better-for-them options didn't strike most consumers as, well, better.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of us -- 33.8% -- are obese, as are 17% of our children. And Deborah Cohen, senior natural scientist at research firm Rand Corp. and co-author of "Prescription for a Healthy Nation," believes that the Krafts and McDonald's of this world must shoulder a lot of the blame. She said that in some ways consumers can't resist unhealthful food all the time because humans are hard-wired to want sugary and fatty food. Combine that with what some consider constant marketing messaging, and it's difficult to resist the temptation.

Big Scale: 2010 state obesity rates in U.S. adults

The real challenge lies in our "limited cognitive capacity," she said. "We're constantly bombarded with messages and signals, and eating is more automatic than ever."

Ms. Cohen added that our increasingly hectic and stressful lives may also make it difficult to stay on task and eat well. "People actually don't have the capacity to make good choices all the time, especially if they're distracted, under stress or in a hurry. And in situations where the presentations for food do not point out the negative consequences," we're more likely to choose the [better-tasting] food that lures us with higher fat and sugar.

Even though consumers say they want healthful fare, and restaurant chains are responding to demand for it, many consumers just aren't eating lighter when they eat out, particularly in these tough economic times.

"Overall consumers are cutting back on spending, so when they go out to eat, they get something they really want," said Sara Monette, director-consumer research at Technomic. In a recent Technomic report, data show that only 23% of consumers polled strongly agree that they tend to pick healthful foods when eating out.

As for the other 77%, the fast-food industry is trying to give them options, even if it's in response to outside pressure. McDonald's in July announced menu modifications with the promise that by 2020 the chain will reduce added sugar, saturated fat and calories through varied portion sizes and what the company called reformulations, reducing sodium an average of 15% across its national menu by 2015. It also said it was revamping the Happy Meal, automatically offering apples and a smaller side of fries than before.

The National Restaurant Association in July launched a first-of -its kind voluntary initiative with participants including Burger King, Chili's and Denny's, to spur chains to offer and promote more-healthful kids' meal options. And Darden -- whose chains include Olive Garden and Red Lobster -- in September announced reduced sodium and calorie modifications over the next five to 10 years, as well as kids' menu items with fruits and vegetables as sides.

Of course, there's a risk here. When marketers change the formulas of their popular foods or introduce more-healthful products, they can fall flat, which is one reason for the slow timetable. Take sodium, for instance. "The sodium in restaurant meals is so high that if you cut it to where it should be to be considered healthy, it's not going to sell well," said Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But the idea is to have a gradual reduction so we start to affect the palate of Americans. By reducing it 10% to 15%, the taste won't be affected dramatically."

She added that the issue becomes more complex when it comes to kids. "Parents need to do their best and try to teach their kids healthfully. But there are so many different marketing methods that kids are being reached with. How does a parent control that ? All I hear from parents is "It's so hard.'"

Of course, fatty foods in moderation are not the issue. The challenge is making healthful items more attractive. "The temptations don't necessarily need to go away, but they need to be less prominent and accessible. The healthier choices need to be less costly," said Ms. Giancoli.

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